Trauma and Re-Experiencing: The Intrusion of Past into Present

Last month I wrote about avoidance, one component of trauma-related struggles for many people. Another one of the primary things therapists consider when exploring trauma-related problems is what we call “re-experiencing.” When the natural healing process after a traumatic experience does not go smoothly, one of the things that many people will find themselves struggling with is the fact the memories of the traumatic event won’t seem to settle in and fade into the background, instead remaining very charged and intruding frequently into day-to-day life—re-experiencing.

Re-experiencing happens in a few ways. Some people find that they have unavoidable nightmares related to the event. This can be so distressing that some people find they avoid going to sleep at all. Others find that thoughts about the event and its aftermath trespass unbidden in their minds during their waking hours; we call these “intrusive thoughts.” Some find that memories from the event pop up and that they cannot control when and how these memories occur, sometimes in response to specific environmental cues and sometimes seemingly at random.

When these types of memories begin to plague a person, they can be quite distressing. This is because the way our brains form memories during a critical incident is physiologically different than the way they form the more pedestrian memories of our day-to-day lives. When the memories associated with a traumatic event are formed, they tend to be stored as sensory memories: we remember the sights, the smells, and the sounds the way we experienced them during the event. The part of our brains that stores these memories does not comprehend language and it does not read clocks—there is no sense of orderliness or reason about the memories, and there is no sense of relative distance in time. When the memories occur, our brains interpret it as an urgent sense of danger and distress in the present moment, and the sensory nature of the memories adds to the sense of urgency associated with them.

While our logical brains recognize that the memories don’t make sense and are not rational, they cannot communicate this to that part of the brain reacting to the sense of urgency created by the memories, since they do not comprehend the orderly, reasonable input of language created by our rational brain. This dilemma—understanding that there is no comprehensible or logical reason to feel distressed, yet feeling extremely distressed and trapped by the memories that won’t stop intruding—can itself be extremely distressing to the trauma survivor, who may feel like he or she is “going crazy” or “losing it” when the memories and distress they engender won’t abate.

If this overwhelming cycle of re-experiencing, distress, and confusion about what’s happening is causing difficulty for you or a loved one, it’s important to know this: you AREN’T crazy and you AREN’T losing it. You are experiencing a normal response to an abnormal event. However, if after a few weeks have passed the memories still intrude with urgency, it may be that your normal healing process has become stuck. In this case, speaking with an experienced therapist skilled in this area may be a good choice for you.

Moving forward from this place can feel overwhelming for some, but know that it most certainly is possible. It won’t always be easy, and confronting those memories requires courage. However, doing so in the safe and contained therapeutic environment can be very effective in helping the brain get the memories sorted out and “put away” in an adaptive and functional way so that they no longer intrude on and disrupt day-to-day functioning. It is worth the investment of time and energy it will take to move on to a place of healing and put the past where it belongs—in the past.

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